Tag Archives: working life

Latchkey Ladies: Marjorie Grant (1921)

“Latchkey ladies, letting themselves in and out of dismal rooms, being independent and hating it. All very well for people with gifts and professions, artists or writers, but for us, the ordinary ones…”

Marjorie Grant’s Latchkey Ladies examines the lives of several young women in London at the end of WWI. In this world of social flux, these young women lead dreary working lives with only the possibility of dull marriages as the alternative. The book includes an extensive, informative introduction by Sarah LeFanu, and since it includes information regarding the plot, readers may want to not read this until finishing the novel.

The novel opens at the Mimosa Club which hosts a number of single women, of varied ages, for meals. The founder Miss Templeton originally intended that the club would provide “simple comforts,” to young working women, but found that older women also wanted membership. The disapproving, snobbish kill-joy Mrs Bridson, who sits in judgment on the young women every evening, feels that “war-work girls should be excluded in favour of the elderly and well born.” Mrs Bridson particularly disapproves of vivacious Maquita Gilroy, a government clerk, while Mrs. Bridson’s long-suffering companion, Miss Spicer, is much more tolerant of the young women.

The opening sequence in which a group of young women discuss the various hardships they face in the working world, presents the arguments for and against being one of the “latchkey ladies,” devoid of family or male support. The young women have “moments when independence seemed the most forlorn ambition in the world.” It’s hard to make ends meet. The rooms they live in are shabby and depressing. One girl, Lynette, thinks living at home is preferable, but Maquita argues otherwise. Anne reasons that “independence. The pleasure of earning money. The desire to escape interference” is one great benefit of leaving home, but that “the latchkey claims us, and we become slaves of the key!”

Anne Carey is the novel’s central figure. At 24, she’s engaged to a lieutenant in the army but she finds him boring. One night at a party she meets a married man, Philip Dampier, and they begin an affair. …. The novel explores the lifestyles of these young women, and the various life choices they face. Apart from Anne and Maquita, there are a handful of other young women, including Sophy Garden, and a young actress called Petunia. Possessing a latchkey indicates independence but it comes at a cost.

Through the lives of these young working girls, Latchkey Ladies records the seismic shift taking place in British society. They are a whole new generation of women working instead of getting married or staying at home with family. The war offers additional work opportunities for these young women. Between 1914-1918, more than a million women joined the work force and filled the gaps left by men at war. They may have filled those jobs but they were typically paid half the wages, and this is reflected in the drab, dreary lives of these young working women. Anne has two maiden aunts and two brothers but some of her acquaintances come from still-living parents, and this means they have other choices. There’s the underlying idea that maintaining one’s independence is wearying, and like runners who tire in the race, some of the young women drop off, give up and marry.

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Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.

monsieur

The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert

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